Time and trouble awards

Guidance last updated April 2020

About this paper

This paper sets out Ombudsman Services’ approach to Time and Trouble awards. The aim is to aid participating companies’ understanding of how we make awards so they can consider this approach when dealing with first-tier complaints.

To provide context on Time and Trouble, the paper discusses general decision-making principles and financial awards for corrective action.

General decision-making principles

The main thing we look to do when dealing with a complaint is to put the consumer back in the position they would have been in if the problem had not occurred.

Where it is possible to correct something that went wrong, we will ask the company to correct the thing that went wrong. This can include making awards to recognise the financial impact of a supplier error. We call this Corrective Action.

Suppliers should be able to make right most problems. But they cannot take back time spent complaining, frustration, worry, or upset caused. We sometimes prescribe financial awards to acknowledge these consequences of complaints. We call these awards Time and Trouble awards.

Cutting across both Corrective Action and Time and Trouble awards is Impact. When Ombudsman Services’ makes a decision – we are not looking to punish the supplier for the scale of any particular error or omission. We consider the impact on the consumer and award accordingly.

We discuss Corrective Action, Time and Trouble awards, and Impact in more detail in the sections below.

Corrective action

Where we decide that a consumer has been treated unfairly, we will require a remedy that returns them to the position they would have been in had the circumstances that led to the complaint not occurred. Examples of such corrective action include:

  • Remedies we require to correct billing errors

  • Remedies to clear charges which we consider the consumer would not have incurred if the company had acted in a reasonable manner

  • Remedies for clearing incorrectly applied termination fees

  • Remedies to cover expenses a complainant has incurred as a result of an error or omission from the company (bank charges, for example)

  • Removal of charges for previously unbilled usage more than a year old if the supplier at fault for not billing accurately

Example

If a supplier unreasonably objected to a supply transfer, and this meant a delay in a consumer receiving a lower tariff, it would be appropriate for the supplier to make a payment to cover the extra amount the consumer had to pay during the period of delayed transfer.

Some corrective actions are simple, obvious, and fall naturally from the circumstances of the complaint

Example

A consequence, undercharging for an extended period is that had the consumer known the true cost of their energy, they could have made savings. We will never know the true financial impact of extended incorrect billing, but the industry rules on backbilling will guide us to a standardised remedy to acknowledge the detriment, or potential detriment.

Other corrective actions are guided by industry rules, such as those on backbilling, metering appointments, or transfers. We are also faced with some less plain circumstances. Consumers will claim that a supplier error or omission caused additional costs or losses that they would like reimbursed.

If a consumer was left without supply, they might go to stay in a hotel. In such circumstances, we would consider whether the consumer truly needed to incur the additional costs, whether the costs were proportionate, and whether they could have mitigated those costs. Staying in a five-star hotel and ordering room service every day would not be necessary. And a consumer being off supply, not chasing for two months, and expecting expenses to be covered during that period would not be mitigating their losses.

Time and Trouble awards

*If a customer has been put to time and trouble by a supplier error or omission, it might be appropriate for the supplier to provide an apology and / or a financial award.

To determine an appropriate award, we have criteria for assessing Time and Trouble. *

Time

When we talk about Time we mean the inconvenience, hassle, and irritation caused to a consumer by a participating company’s actions.

Examples we see in complaints include:

  • The consumer having to call their supplier on more than one occasion to request information, report a problem or to make a change to their account

  • The consumer spending more time than reasonable trying to resolve the problem that has occurred

  • The consumer not receiving (appropriate) responses to complaints or requests and having to follow up

  • The consumer being without service, or part of a service, for a prolonged period due to a fault or error

Trouble

When we talk about Trouble, we refer to the disappointment, worry, anxiety and upset caused by how the participating company has behaved.

Common causes of such trouble include:

  • The participating company referring the consumer’s account to a debt collection company even though the account has been paid up to date or was a disputed bill that should have been placed on hold

  • The participating company sending a large, unexpected bill to the complainant which is either incorrect or is the result of the company acting in an unfair manner

  • The participating company providing an unauthorised third party with the complainant’s sensitive personal information

  • The participating company threatening disconnection of the energy supply inappropriately

  • The participating company marking a consumer’s credit file incorrectly

Impact

Our awards recognise the impact of a supplier error or omission on the consumer, not the perceived scale of the supplier error. The same mistake from a supplier in two cases can have a wildly different impact on the two consumers.

An incorrect credit file marking could have no impact for one consumer. But for another, it could mean being refused a job. Surrounding this, the frustration and worry caused by the company failing to make a promised call back will be more significant for the complainant that needs the error corrected to secure a new job.

When looking at Corrective Action, we try to make an award that covers the exact detriment. When it comes to Time and Trouble, we assess the amount of Time and Trouble suffered using a matrix.

The maximum award set out on our matrix is £400. We may prescribe financial awards as corrective action above this level, but it is rare that we would award above £400 for Time and Trouble alone.

The Time and Trouble matrix have categories on each axis of:

  • No significant time/trouble

  • Low time/trouble

  • Medium time/trouble

  • High time/trouble

There is not a fixed formula for determining the category a complaint falls into. There is an element of subjectivity and the application of the investigation officer’s judgement. However, we guide our investigation officers on the appropriate categories with examples as set out in the appendix.

Summary

  • Financial awards are split into two categories – corrective action and time and trouble

  • For both categories, awards are based on the impact on the consumer and not the perceived scale of supplier error or omission

  • Time and trouble awards can be subjective, but we guide our investigation officers using a time and trouble matrix